The Texans (1-12-1) head to Nashville for a Saturday showdown at noon with the Titans (7-7). This is the second meeting of 2022 between the two franchises. Tennessee won, 17-10, at NRG Stadium in Week 8. Here are five things to watch when they kick off at Nissan Stadium.
1) Hold Henry in check
In his last four games against the Texans, Derrick Henry has been a menace. The Titans running back has eclipsed the 200-yard mark on the ground in each of those contests, he's scored a combined nine touchdowns, and he's averaged 30 carries per game.
Limiting the damage is of paramount importance to the Texans defense. Defensive Lineman Jonathan Greenard said slowing down Henry (who wears jersey number 22) is the key.
"We obviously know what the main objective is: 22 back there," Greenard said. "We've got to continue to do what we're coached to do. Just get in our gaps and make the plays when they arrive to us."
According to linebacker Christian Kirksey, the approach doesn't change. But the execution of the approach must occur.
"All 11 to the ball," Kirksey said. "Play behind our pads, play physical, play relentless and make sure that he doesn't become a spark in the game. It's pretty much the same deal when you're playing a good back like that."
When these two squads played in Houston at midseason, the Titans went into halftime with a 7-3 advantage. When their offense took the field in the second half, Henry and Dontrell Hilliard ran the ball 19 consecutive times before attempting a pass. On the opening possession of the third quarter, Henry punched through for a 1-yard touchdown on the ninth play of an all-run drive that consumed over six minutes of game time.
2) How much shuffling?
Two weeks ago, Davis Mills and Jeff Driskel evenly split the reps at quarterback. Mills started, but each signal-caller was on the field for 33 offensive snaps. Last Sunday against the Chiefs, Driskel started, but Mills got the lion's share of the snaps. For a handful of plays, both were on the field at the same time. Titans Head Coach Mike Vrabel explained his team will be ready for both quarterbacks.
"They've used the quarterback system to kind of force you to play a couple different looks and be prepared for a lot of things," Vrabel said. "That's something that we'll have to be prepared for as the game starts and it works its way through."
Over the two games Houston's employed the 2-QB system, the Texans scored 23 points at Dallas and 24 points versus the Chiefs. The season-high for a game was previously 24 in Week 4 against the Chargers.
"If we can continue to mix that up, it kind of simplifies what defenses can do because they have to prepare for so many looks during the week that they can't add in all the complex blitz looks and disguises for certain coverages," Mills said. "It just kind of simplifies the defense for us so we can go out there and see it cleaner than usual. Really just go out and react and let our guys win on the edge."
3) Speaking of QB's
Ryan Tannehill won't play Saturday because of an ankle injury. He missed the previous matchup in Houston with a stomach illness and an ankle injury. Rookie Malik Willis started and guided the Titans to the Division win.
This time around, Willis will see a Texans defense that has defensive linemen Jonathan Greenard and Maliek Collins back in the mix. The edge defender and interior linemen were out with injury in Week 8. Also, rookie linebacker Christian Harris made his second start in the last matchup, while rookie Jalen Pitre wasn't playing the free safety role he is now. Over the last three weeks, Pitre's logged double-digit tackles, is averaging 13.6 per game, and has picked off a pass.
Pitre, though, is impressed by the fellow rookie Willis.
"Versatile quarterback," Pitre said. "Can do a lot of things, running the ball and throwing the ball. You've just got to make sure you know where he is when he does have the ball, and also stick to the receivers when he is scrambling."
In seven games this season, Willis has completed 44.7 percent of his passes for 177 yards. He's not thrown a touchdown and he's been picked off once. His two starts came against Houston and then Kansas City in Week 9.
4) Texans run adjustments
In their first game this season without rookie Dameon Pierce, the Texans mustered 94 yards on 28 carries. Pierce's season was ended when the Texans placed him on injured reserve with an ankle injury.
Leading the way for Houston on the ground last Sunday was Royce Freeman. He picked up 51 yards on 11 carries, and turned some heads along the way.
"It was very encouraging to see Royce really just step in and show that he can be a physical, downhill, in-between-the-tackles type runner, which is what we're going to need to have a chance to wear on a really good defense that we'll face on Saturday," offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said.
Losing Pierce was a big blow, but according to Head Coach Lovie Smith, Freeman's performance helped mitigate the loss.
"I like what he did," Smith said. "Waited for his opportunity and made the most of it. I thought he ran hard. Tough physical yards, I thought we were able to get when Royce was out there. Not Dameon Pierce, but when you come in in a backup role, to have that kind of production, it's pretty good."
5) Brrrrrr, the weather
Frigid conditions await both teams at kickoff on Saturday. The high in Nashville is predicted to be just 24 degrees Fahrenheit that day. Although there's not a threat of snow or ice, it will still be noticeably colder.
Some have said they won't pay attention to it, while others have. Count Kirksey in the group that doesn't care.
"With today's game, we have heated benches," Kirksey said. "We have the big coats. With your adrenaline flowing, you're out there running around, you don't really pay attention to it at some point, at least for me. I've been around the cold my whole career for the most part. It's a mental thing."
Wide receiver Chris Moore also downplayed the weather's impact.
"To be honest, it's really not that cold when you're on the sidelines," Moore said. "You've got heated benches, those jet heaters. It's really not that cold when you're on the sideline. There are little moments during the game, even that, you're just so warm on the sideline. It's only for a few minutes. It's nothing too difficult to handle."